If you live in North America or Europe, you could be forgiven for thinking you have mother nature under your thumb. As a rule, the farther north you go, the fewer things you encounter that could be bothered to kill you. The one great exception – the polar bear – lives so far north that he rarely gets to sample human au poivre.
But when you venture to more exotic climes, remember: there’s no church in the wild. To the creatures you encounter, you’re just another bag of bones. If you step in the wrong patch of grass, you might wake up in a hospital – if you wake up at all.
These are the 10 most dangerous animals you should be wary of on your travels. Some of them may surprise you.
10. Cape Buffalo (Africa)
Widespread in West Africa, the Sub-Sahara, and South Africa, Cape buffalo are not to be confused with docile domestic cows. Cape buffalo range from 600-2,200 pounds at their largest, and they are not shy about defending themselves – or each other. Herds will come to the rescue of members who cry out in distress; they have been known to crush lions and crocodiles to death to save their calves.
Cape buffalo society (such as it is) is quite democratic, actually. The females will make collective decisions about which way the herd should move, sitting in the direction they favor until a consensus emerges.
As adorable as they may seem, you would be well advised to keep your distance if you’re on safari. Precise numbers are hard to come by, but perhaps as many as 200 people are gored to death by buffaloes in Africa every year. In Uganda, nearly 50% of attacks involve at least one human fatality. Even wounded buffaloes can lash out at their pursuers – earning them a fearsome reputation among hunters as well.
9. The Sea Wasp (Northern Australia/Pacific Asia)
Box jellyfish are commonly held to be the most venomous creatures on earth, but most species are in fact harmless. Not so with Chironex fleckeri, better known as the sea wasp. It’s the deadliest jellyfish out there, with a known death toll of 63 in Australia alone though its range stretches as far north as the Philippines).
I’d like to tell you how to spot a sea wasp, but the truth is they’re often invisible in the water, being more or less transparent. Notably, box jellyfish are generally only active during the day, so you could opt for a night swim instead. You know, like in the opening scene of Jaws.
The best policy is to ask knowledgeable locals and plan ahead if you intend to go for a swim, since sea wasps and their relatives are endemic in some coastal regions of the South Pacific, particularly from November to May. There are also some beaches in Northern Australia where nets protect swimmers from jellyfish incursions.
The sting of the sea wasp itself can be remarkably painful, although it is seldom fatal. In fact, most incidents are relatively minor, though the creature contains enough venom to kill as many as 60 adult humans.
The current best practice for treating a sea wasp sting is to pour vinegar on the wound. The acid stops any of the jelly’s embedded cells from releasing further poison into the victim’s system.
8. Russell’s Viper (Indian subcontinent/Southeast Asia)
The viper’s genus name, daboia, derives from a Hindi word meaning “the lurker.” If that doesn’t scare you, it should.
Russell’s vipers are ambush predators who conceal themselves and lie in wait for something tasty to stray into their sights. Unfortunately, this can lead to attacks on humans when the snakes go slithering in suburban areas. Although Russell’s vipers are actually comparatively docile, especially as they age, they are nonetheless the deadliest snakes in Asia by the numbers.
When agitated, they make an eerie “sizzling” noise. Their strike is extremely powerful; at 4ft. long on average, they are able to lift most of their bodies off the ground when they decide to bite. Without treatment, bite victims’ blood will not coagulate, they will become lightheaded, and ultimately suffer kidney failure.
So watch your step, and keep your ears open for that tell-tale “sizzle.”
7. Pufferfish (Japan)
Pufferfish can be found all over the world in tropical waters, but they’re only likely to kill you in Japan, after they’re already dead.
Pufferfish are something of a delicacy in Japan – in the form of soup (chiri) or just raw flesh (sashimi). In sashimi form, pufferfish (or fugu in Japanese) often causes a state mild of drunkenness, numbing the mouth and dizzying the mind. But it can also be highly dangerous, especially the chiri. If prepared improperly, the dish can be fatal.
Pufferfish contains large quantities of tetrodotoxin; in sufficient doses, it will paralyze your muscles, including your diaphragm, while leaving you conscious but unable to breathe. Not a pleasant way to go. So if someone in Japan offers you fugu, know what you’re getting into.
6. Tsetse Fly (Sub-Saharan Africa)
A fly such as this may seem like a mere nuisance, but the tsetse is one of the deadliest critters on this list. Much like mosquitos, tsetse flies feast on mammal blood. In the process, they are primarily responsible for spreading African Sleeping Sickness to humans in rural areas.
African Sleeping Sickness doesn’t kick in for a couple weeks after the initial bite. It begins with headaches and fevers, and progresses to confusion, disorientation, and, if left untreated, coma and death. Thus the humble tsetse fly makes the list.
The good news is that the prognosis has improved greatly in the last 30 years. Sleeping Sickness still kills approximately 3,500 people a year, but that’s down from 34,000 in 1990.
Even though the odds of contracting the disease are slight, take precautions if you’re visiting Sub-Saharan Africa. There is no vaccine, but you should assess the risk of the region you’re visiting, and bring long sleeves and insect repellent.
5. Brazilian Wandering Spider (South America)
The key word here is wandering. This fellow wanders. Sometimes he wanders the jungle, far from large human settlements. Sometimes he wanders into crates of bananas – hence his alternate nickname: “banana spider.” Sometimes he wanders into dark crevices in or near homes, hiding in clothes, shoes, piles of wood, in basements etc.
That’s where the danger arises, since these spiders are among the few on earth which actually pose a legitimate threat to humans. The Brazilian wandering spider’s venom is a powerful neurotoxin that can cause breathing problems, muscle weakness, and even long-term impotence in men. Of equal importance, this species also has the ability to deliver its venom to the human body.
Despite their nickname, you will find members of this genus throughout South America east of the Andes, and as far north as Costa Rica.
4. Blue-Ringed Octopus (Pacific/Indian Ocean)
This little baby may not grow to be larger than 8 inches in length, but she can pack a punch if you put her in the corner.
The blue-ringed octopus lingers in the shallows and reefs of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, so you might encounter her if you dive or snorkel there. With her beautiful titular blue rings and naturally coy demeanor, she may well charm you. But do NOT touch. She’s actually one of the deadliest animals on earth, with enough venom to kill 26 adult humans in a matter of minutes.
The blue-ringed octopus will only attack you if you provoke it. But if that happens, you need to surface FAST. And you better have someone with you, because you will no longer be able to breathe within minutes. The blue-ring’s poison is almost identical to the pufferfish’s, so you’ll need to be on a breathing machine until it clears your system.
3. Hippopotamus (Sub-Saharan Africa)
This one breaks my heart a bit, because hippos are adorable. They look like giant pigs with big sarcastic eyes, and I want to hug them. But I don’t, because I like being alive.
Although hippos are vegetarians, and thus have no interest in eating you, they are extremely aggressive. And with an average weight of around 3,000 pounds, this is one heavyweight with whom you don’t want to step into the ring.
Since hippos are semiaquatic and can be nearly invisible when submerged in a river, they’re particularly dangerous to boaters. In one incident, a hippo flipped a boat in Niger, killing 13 people – and that’s far from an isolated incident. They will not hesitate to stand their ground; even lions generally prefer easier prey than a full-grown hippopotamus.
2. Elephants (Africa/Asia)
Elephants are the largest land mammals on earth, majestic, powerful, deliberate, and emotional.
But there is a dark side to the emotionality of elephants: they tend to remember the mistreatment they suffer at the hands of humans, and sometimes they even exact revenge.
In 2013, an elephant was tragically struck and killed by a train in eastern India. In response, other elephants gathered at the spot where their friend had died, and locals were forced to chase them away with fire crackers and drums. Then the elephants rampaged into a nearby village, damaging several homes and a schoolhouse in what can only be described as an act of retribution.
It’s not an isolated event. Between 2000 and 2006, elephants killed more than 500 people in northeastern India.
So, despite my love of these gentle giants, I have to slot them in at #2 on the danger list.
1. Mosquitoes (EVERYWHERE)
They’re not poisonous. They’re not venomous. They can’t crush you to death.
But they transmit malaria, yellow fever, zika, West Nile virus, dengue fever, and many parasites. And that makes them, without question, the deadliest creature on earth. So, wherever you’re going, bring bug spray. And if you’re going to Africa, make sure you will have a mosquito net so you can sleep in peace.
To learn more about treacherous creatures, check out The 8 Most Dangerous North American Animals.